Back “Atrophy,” Edith Wharton

From Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937

Walter Berry and Edith Wharton, undated photograph. The man in the background is unidentified. (The Mount)

During the early years of World War I, Wharton threw her energy behind various relief efforts in France by providing supplies to military hospitals and making five trips to the Western Front.

She was accompanied by D.C. lawyer Walter Van Rensselaer Berry. Their presence in the war effort was prominent enough that the popular humor magazine Le Rire Rouge featured a caricature on its front cover after the cartoonist had accompanied them on their third trip to the front. Wharton accepted the mockery in stride, writing to a friend, “We took Abel Faivre with us, & he’s made such a good sketch of us at Gerbéviller. Walter’s expression whenever I suggested visiting a hospital or doing anything good was caught to a line.” She was more than willing to endure a little ridicule if it would bring in funds for her various charitable efforts.

Berry died in 1927 after a year of illness, and Wharton was devastated. The two friends were often considered an “item” by the press, and many of their friends even assumed they were lovers. The exact nature of their 44-year companionship remains unclear—and it became the source of numerous and sometimes ridiculous rumors.

During the months Berry was bedridden, Whaton wrote one of her shortest (and best) stories, “Atrophy,” about a married woman who goes to visit her secret former lover, who is dying. We present it as our Story of the Week selection, with an introduction that examines its tenuous connection to her friendship with Berry.

Read Edith Wharton’s “Atrophy”

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